Is it cool to buy a cup of coffee and a croissant and hang out at a coffee shop anymore? Not cool as in “stylish,” but cool as in “socially acceptable” or “appropriate.” It’s a question confounding San Francisco remote workers in search of places to WFH away from, er, home, and it’s driving a wedge between would-be customers and coffee shop owners and staff. As the Bay Area continues to inch out from underneath COVID’s long shadow, how to simply exist in a cafe seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle — though the general message from Bay Area coffee shops feels pretty clear: get your coffee, and get the hell out.
Throughout the Bay Area, it seems like businesses are trying everything and anything to encourage customers to move along. Starbucks took the chairs and tables out of its “Bearbucks” location on 18th Street in the Castro, a move SFGATE reports has been roundedly-knocked by local employees and customers. Cafe Reveille’s Duboce Triangle location was recently roasted for being so overrun with remote workers that it feels like zombieland. Meanwhile, specialty coffee progenitor and Bay Area-based Peet’s is rolling out its first to-go-only store in San Francisco’s Union Square neighborhood.
The new Peet’s to-go concept is smaller than its typical coffee shops and with no indoor seating. Peet’s CEO Eric Lauterbach, who was born in San Francisco and lives here now, says he’s never seen downtown so empty, and, as a company, Peet’s has to react to those ebbs and flows. So while residential stores and neighborhood shops will stay the same, the Montgomery to-go location provides downtown coffee drinkers what they’re looking for these days: a place to pick up a quick beverage on their rare commutes into the office. “Post-pandemic, people are using coffee shops differently,” Lauterbach says. “I’ve been at Peet’s 13 years, and feedback used to be that the chairs weren’t comfy enough since people wanted to stay awhile. Now our mobile transactions are north of 20 percent.”
The reasons for all the move-right-along energy are as various as the negative impacts of the pandemic, though most — including Lauterbach — agree COVID accelerated these already-in-the-works changes. In San Francisco, the service industry workforce shrunk by 55 percent from 2019 to 2021, meaning there are fewer people around to make that morning coffee. San Francisco city economist Ted Egan found the city to be 24th out of the 25 major metropolitan areas in terms of COVID recovery, and that lag can certainly be felt in the restaurant and service industry.
But it’s not just San Francisco: According to international coffee magazine Standart, the rules for cafe culture are changing the world over. First, the obvious: the sale of home brewing equipment and bagged beans spiked during the pandemic when nobody could go anywhere. That necessity bore adoration and many coffee fans stayed in that DIY camp — see: the dalgona coffee trend in 2020. Plus, Lauterbach says even consumers who do come into the office might arrive later now — at 9 a.m. for example, well after making that first cup at home.
So where does that leave the rules of cafe culture these days? In short, buy something more than you’d think and maybe more than you’d like. Don’t assume Wi-Fi or table space will be provided or available. Standart writes that a 60-minute rule is almost globally accepted, especially in a pinched-for-pennies city like San Francisco, where moving through a high volume of orders is important to longtime and new cafes alike. Respect baristas and treat them as human beings, of course, followed by respecting the space itself. It’s not your home office, and if there’s no outlet don’t be offended; bring a portable battery or hot spot.
Lauterbach points out that at the original Peet’s, customers could get the code to the Wi-Fi, which shut off after 45 minutes. And while the Montgomery store has a few tables outside, the to-go approach removes any of those concerns for the company. “We need to understand trends and needs going forward,” Lauterbach says. “Peet’s used to be too rigid in the past, and now we’re adapting on the fly as we go.”
One longtime barista, who chose to remain anonymous rather than run the risk of losing any tips, said the rule in his mind is to buy an item or coffee every two hours. “If they can afford it,” the barista said. “If it’s super packed, or someone asks you to leave, that’s different.”
Still, Joshua Kaplowitz, an experienced Bay Area barista and founder of pop-up Better Half Coffee, is remiss to think Bay Area cafe culture is giving Sonic the Hedgehog vibes. He says the to-go trend prioritizes convenience rather than conversation, the energy many love about cafe culture. But in addition to Better Half, shops including Coffee Movement’s Richmond District location, Temo’s on 24th, and the community-centric Deathless Coffee continue to cultivate relationships. “Consumers will gravitate towards what brought them to shops in the first place,” Kaplowitz says. He may be right. And if not, there’s always the library.
Correction: Monday, April 24, 8:37 a.m. This article was corrected to show that the Peet’s store at 155 Montgomery is in the Union Square neighborhood and has a smaller footprint than other Peet’s locations. Additionally, Peet’s CEO Eric Lauterbach was born in San Francisco and lives in the city now.